Leadership and Iraq dominate the year

Politics in 2006 was dominated by the tensions between Tony Blair and his Chancellor, the rising fortunes of the Tories under David Cameron, the misfortunes of the Liberal Democrats, the squalid cash for peerages row, and Iraq.

By Graham Dines

Politics in 2006 was dominated by the tensions between Tony Blair and his Chancellor, the rising fortunes of the Tories under David Cameron, the misfortunes of the Liberal Democrats, the squalid cash for peerages row, and Iraq. Political Editor Graham Dines takes a whimsical look back on 2006.

THE LIB DEM LEADERSHIP

SIMMERING under the surface of Charles Kennedy's leadership of the Liberal Democrats was the open secret of his drinking.


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As 2005 closed, senior MPs - appalled that the party was going nowhere under the benign Kennedy - decided they could no longer keep the lid on his battle with the bottle.

He was told in no uncertain terms to come to terms with his demons or get out. That first weekend of January, Mr Kennedy tried to take up the challenge.

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He publicly admitted his drink problem and said he was seeking help. Within days, faced with the possibility of a mass resignation from his front bench team, Mr Kennedy withdrew to seek help for his booze addiction.

The ensuing leadership contest descended into farce. Winchester MP Mark Oaten entered the lists, and summoned the TV cameras to his house to film a happy family meal with his wife and children. This was a step too far for a London rent boy, who spilled the beans to a Sunday tabloid on his romps with Mr Oaten in a seedy hotel. On one occasion, they had been joined by a second rent boy for afternoon sandwiches.

Oaten quit the race in disgrace and later announced his intention to withdraw from public life and decided he would not be fighting the next General Election.

Another contender Simon Hughes, who in 1983 had fought a bitter, homophobic by-election campaign in south London against gay rights activist Peter Tatchell, was forced to admit he was bi-sexual.

The Liberal Democrat leadership contest droned on. It may be unkind to call it lacklustre, but I will anyway. The party missed a massive opportunity. Months earlier, the Tories had elected David Cameron after a debate directed at the wider country. But the Lib Dems largely talked to themselves.

Mr Hughes' challenge faded away and for a time it looked as if Chris Huhne, an MP for less than a year, might pull off a surprise victory. Battered and bruised Lib Dem activists - reeling from the fallout that their popular Charlie was a drunk, that the nice Mr Oaten had dumped on his family, and that Simon Hughes had not been exactly honest about his sexuality - decided they needed a steady hand on the tiller and elected Sir Ming Campbell as leader.

ERMINE `FOR SALE'

THE proverbial hit the fan as Labour became engulfed in sleaze allegations after party treasurer Jack Dromey blew the whistle on a nice little earner. It seems the Prime Minister and Downing Street were raking in millions of loans for Labour's election fighting fund, without bothering to tell Mr Dromey or the party's NEC.

Unlike donations to political parties, loans are not declarable - in other words, the Prime Minister was exploiting a loophole in legislation which he had introduced to prove that Labour could be trusted, unlike the Tories.

But were some of those making the loans given peerages for their largesse to Labour?

Lord Levy, the Prime Minister's fund raiser otherwise known as Lord Cashpoint, was interviewed under caution after Scotland Yard started investigating the murky world of donations to political parties at the request of the Scottish National Party.

And two weeks' ago, Mr Blair himself was interviewed, although Downing Street was at pains to stress it was not under caution.

JOHN PRESCOTT

THE Deputy Prime Minister was forced to admit an affair he had been having with one of his diary secretaries. They were up to it at his official home at Dorneywood and his grace and favour apartment in Admiralty Arch.

Then it was revealed that he had spent time enjoying the hospitality of an American billionaire - the same man who wants to convert the Millennium Dome into a Las Vegas-style casino.

THE HOME OFFICE

WITH legal and illegal immigration into the UK out of control - does anyone really know how many people cross our borders every year? - parliamentary inquiries discovered that foreign prisoners had been released into society instead of being deported. What a pantomime. With the hunt on for murderers, rapists and other violent types, Home Secretary Charles Clarke insisted he was the best person to sort the mess out. Oh no, he wasn't

Labour was humbled in May's local elections. In the immediate Cabinet shake-up which saw Mr Prescott stripped of his ministerial duties, Mr Clarke refused to be moved to another post and was promptly sacked by Mr Blair. The Prime Minister called up bruiser-in-chief John Reid to take charge who rounded on his predecessor by declaring the Home Office was “not fit for purpose.”

THE CONSERVATIVES

THROUGHOUT the year, the Tories were ahead in the opinion polls as the Cameron Effect took hold. But given all the Government's unpopularity, the lead was less than could have been anticipated, and it started to tail off with the onset of winter.

The Tories became green, held a love-in with arch left-wing social commentator Polly Toynbee, and started selecting more black, Asian, female, and gay candidates.

Sleepy Witham in Essex became the unlikely setting for controversy. A newly created constituency, the Tories sought a candidate for this safe haven. An Asian man was knocked out of the preliminary rounds and rounded on Essex North MP Bernard Jenkin - Tory vice-chairman in charge of candidates - and other local MPs who allegedly told him that they would be amazed if Witham did not choose a white, middle class male candidate.

Denials all round. And Witham promptly proved the sceptics wrong and chose Pritti Patel, an Asian woman to fight the seat. The cheers from the top of Mr Cameron's wind turbine echoed around the Tory Party.

Mr Jenkin was removed as deputy chairman in charge of candidates, although all concerned were at pains to deny the Witham row was the reason.

THE HEALTH CRISIS

MR Cameron visited Ipswich Hospital and the West Suffolk at Bury St Edmunds in November to see for himself the funding crisis in the NHS and how hospitals were coping with their debt.

Tony Blair called a breakfast summit at Number 10 before Easter, to which I was invited. He and Patricia Hewitt nodded in appreciation as health bosses from all over England detailed the pain they were inflicting to get their trusts back in surplus.

In general, the health service in Suffolk and north Essex could best be diagnosed as sick - not fit for purpose in the new jargon - and in need of a good enema - or reconfiguration as Tony Blair insists on calling it.

The two counties became overwhelmed by NHS problems. Ipswich Hospital announced a deficit of £25m, cottage hospitals in Suffolk faced the chop, West Suffolk Hospital in Bury could be downgraded, Colchester's PFI project was abandoned, and the PFI for Broomfield in Chelmsford delayed. “Crisis what crisis?” chirruped Ms Hewitt as nurses were sacked, operating theatres mothballed, and wards closed.

PARTY CONFERENCES

THERE were tears by the bucketful in Manchester as Tony Blair delivered his last speech to the faithful. A few weeks earlier, he had reluctantly agreed that he would step down within a year after receiving a “quit now” letter from 17 Labour MPs, including Ipswich's Chris Mole.

Cherie Blair was overheard by a journalist furiously decrying an “I love Tony” speech by Chancellor Gordon Brown as a lie. Mr Blair may be on his way out, but cruelly clings to office to frustrate the Chancellor.

The Lib Dems launched their green taxes policy, which would replace income tax with higher charges for motoring and travel and a tax on polluters. Sir Ming Campbell addressed his first conference as leader. He didn't set the world alight, in fact the speech was deadly dull, but at least it was full of gravitas and emphasised the party's commitment to “the polluter pays”.

Contrast this with David Cameron's speeches to his conference in Bournemouth - mercurial Dave, the great Green campaigner who wants us all to take feral smelling louts into our homes, empathise with their crack habit, and forgive them for raping and beating up our grandmothers.

Mr Cameron's appearances looked good on TV but he didn't really say very much of any substance.

CLIMATE CHANGE

LABOUR belatedly joined the green revolution after publication of an Apocalypse Next Week report saying the world will be in dire straits unless we all change our ways. The Chancellor slapped a fuel tax on family holidays and flights - a regressive tax hitting lower income families disproportionately harder than the Friends of Gordon Brown.

DOMESTIC MATTERS

THE Government lost two divisions in the Commons on the religious hate legislation - one by a single vote after the Prime Minister was sent home by Chief Whip Hilary Armstrong with the assurance he was not needed. Ms Armstrong was demoted in the May Cabinet reshuffle.

The European Union's controversial Ports Directive on the liberalisation of dockside services was thrown out by Euro MPs after massive lobbying by Felixstowe, Harwich, Rotterdam, Hamburg and other major port companies as well as trade unions.

More than 2,500 post offices are to be axed because fewer people are using them, thanks to Government changes in the way pensions and benefits are being paid.

FOREIGN AFFAIRS

THE bloodletting continued in Iraq. The first trial of Saddam Hussein ended with a guilty verdict and the death sentence imposed. Allied troops took heavy casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq and Iran defied international opinion by forging ahead with a nuclear programme which many fear will lead to the development of weapons of mass destruction.

Former US President Gerald Ford, who took over from the disgraced Richard Nixon and served years in the White House, died over Christmas, aged 93.

US elections led to the Democrats taking control of both Houses of Congress as doubts grew over Iraq.

George Walker Bush ended the year friendless at home and abroad, with one notable exception - Anthony Charles Linton Blair.

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